A Primer on College Essays

By Rajkamal Rao  

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

High school students already know that the most important subjective part of their college application is without doubt the college essay.  

Why do colleges need essays?  They already know a lot about you through your grades, honors courses, AP exams and admission tests.

The truth is that grades and admission test scores tend to bring you down to a number.  They measure you well but not adequately.  Students are human and bring with them compelling life stories which are not captured by these numbers.  

The essay provides students an opportunity to present a human side to college admissions officers.

Two Types of Essays

Colleges generally require high school students to submit two types of essays.

The first is the essay required as part of the Common App or Coalition App or the Universal App - these are platforms used to apply to colleges.  The Common App, the most popular platform, lists seven “Personal essay writing prompts”, which are really seven essay questions.  You can pick any one and answer it to a length of 650 words.  For most colleges, this is the only essay you will ever need.

But highly selective colleges will require you to submit additional “supplemental” essays of their choosing.  These colleges want to better understand who you really are, what you want to be and how you can express yourself. Check out our post about the three kinds of essays colleges typically ask you to write and our advice about how to tackle them

Then there are those institutions which do not use the Common App, like public universities in Texas or private schools like MIT.  They will have their own essay requirements.

Regardless of which essay you are writing, the best advice we can provide can be summarized in three simple rules.
  1. Answer the essay question correctly.  Too many students read too much into the question and over-engineer their responses.

  2. Be yourself and be honest.  College admissions officers look at thousands of essays in great detail and can quickly tell a genuine essay from one that's fake. An admissions officer from Harvard, speaking at an event in Ft. Worth in May 2019, advised students to take the "cafeteria test." Suppose you left behind the draft of a college essay in the school cafeteria and you didn't have your name printed on the essay, could a friend read the essay, and immediately knew that it was you who wrote it?  If the answer is yes, you passed the cafeteria test.

  3. Have your essay professionally reviewed by someone who is neutral - that is, someone who didn't raise you from birth!  It is well worth the investment.

Contact us to review/edit your essays. Our reviews are world class and have helped students get in to the most elite of colleges. Here is the "Before" essay of a student, the "After" essay following our review and edits, and an offer of admission the student received from Dartmouth, an Ivy League school. Our lead reviewer has written over 270 articles in newspapers and is a prolific blogger.

Our prices start at $99 per hour.  Please contact us for more information.

A Note About Rao Advisors Premium Services
Our promise is to empower you with high-quality, ethical and free advice via this website.  But parents and students often ask us if they can engage with us for individual counseling sessions.  We offer world-class SOP and essay reviewing services for a reasonable fee, starting at $79/hour.

Individual counseling is part of the Premium Offering of Rao Advisors.  Please  contact us for more information.

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